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The nature of the problem dictates whether or not there can even be a solution, and if so, what that solution might be. Among evangelical Christians, the nature of the “problem” salvation that salvation solves can be described in two basic ways. Either man is sick in his sin, needing to take the medicine, or he is dead in his sin, needed to be resurrected from the dead.
Our purpose here is to examine which of these two options is the Bible’s teaching on this subject.
As we have already considered, because all men are free agents they are free to do as they please. But because they are sinners, what they please to do is sin. They cannot please to choose contrary to their nature, because if they could, it wouldn’t be their nature.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:21–23).
The source of all the evil things we do is the unflattering fact of the evil creatures that we are.
As creatures, men are free to do as they please. As sinners, men are not free to do right. If a man could repent his sins and believe in Christ with his old heart, then this would be proof positive that he didn’t really need a new heart. He could do all that God requires of us (repent and believe) with his old heart. Apparently the old heart just needed a little encouragement.
Now the Scriptures expressly describe the unregenerate condition as being one of death. This does not mean that unbelievers are dead in every possible respect—but with regard to spiritual things, they certainly are in a condition of death. For example, sinners can be physically alive while spiritually dead.
“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:1–3).
We walked in accordance with the pattern of the world. The spirit at work in the children of disobedience worked in our conversation (that is, in our manner of living). So clearly we were moving about—all while dead in our trespasses and sins.
Another picture that excludes “free will” with regard to salvation is the picture of slavery. Dead men do not walk out of the grave, and slaves do not walk away from their masters.
“For when ye were the servants [douloi, slaves] of sin, ye were free from righteousness” (Romans 6:20).
This is a different image, but one that also communicates a sense of utter inability to break free from sin. Dead men can’t reach life. Slaves cannot reach liberty.
No Autonomous Seekers
Now we all know that people do not become Christians unless they seek the Lord. The debate between Christians on this point therefore is not over whether we need to seek the Lord. It is over why we seek the Lord, if and when we do. Men, left to themselves, relinquished to their own devices, will not seek after God. And this is what the Bible explicitly and expressly teaches.
“As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10–12).
How many are unrighteous? All. How many seek a way out of their unrighteousness? None.
An Important Qualification
This doctrine I am setting before you is sometimes called the doctrine of total depravity. This is a poor name for it because it makes people think you are maintaining a doctrine of absolute depravity. But we are not saying that unbelievers are the orcs, and we are the elves. It is not like that. We are saying that unbelievers are, apart from a gift of grace, on their way to Hell. We are not maintaining that they have already arrived there.
We are saying that because of Adam’s sin, and our complicity in it, our fall into helplessness was total. There is a total inability to save ourselves, to prepare ourselves for salvation, or to request salvation.
One other qualification. An unregenerate person can love the Lord, but only by radically misunderstanding and misconstruing Him. An unregenerate person can understand the Lord in His holiness, but this results in a simple recoil away from Him. The only way a sinner can understand who God is, and also love Him, is if the Spirit of God has granted him a new heart.
This basic point is seen in the Bible’s description of the minds of unbelievers. They are seen as hostile to God (that is, to God as He actually is).
“Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7–8; cf. 1 Cor. 2:14).
Who Then Can Be Saved?
The problem with all this is that it leaves us without hope of salvation, right? No, it leaves us without hope of salvation from man. What is impossible for men is possible for God.
“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
“And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:65).
If the Father does not do the drawing, if the Father does not give it, a man cannot come. Another translation for the word for draw (elkuo) is drag or haul. “How did you come to Christ?” “Oh, I was hauled.”
But does this mean that no one ever comes? No—it means that everyone who comes (and remember that the entire world will eventually come) has been hauled in by God.
“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).
What man cannot do with any success, God can do with no failure. And what is that? The resurrection of the dead.